Sunday, 4 July 2010

South East Asia - The Mekong Delta - Part III

Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos? Is that in Vietnam? This is a question I was asked at a barbeque recently. I scoffed, of course, but would I have done so some years ago? I really don't know, but this diminutive and unpretentious nation, replete with hill tribes located deep within the mountains to the north and steeped in buddhism, is perhaps one of my favourite places on earth. The people, I would come to realise, were kind and generous, despite having very little themselves, and utterly welcoming of outsiders in a way totally different to much of South East Asia where the primary motive so often seems to be financial - the Lao are simply not built quite that way, especially if you get out of the cities and into the countryside. We arrived on a plane that really ought to have been de-commissioned when Field Marshal Montgomery was commanding the Desert Rats. The in-flight magazine was first published in a year beginning with 19. The food was not much newer and packaged, lovingly, in a garishly painted cardboard box. The cabin crew - unfeasibly proud of their small airline - tended to our every need. It was perhaps the worst and yet most wonderful flight I have taken in years. That was not to be the last time I would say that of Laos.

We arrived into Luang Prabang late and took a taxi to our hostel, the Jaliya Guesthouse on the outskirts of town. Run by an improbably fearsome but kindly woman, who ushered us to our room within the garden area of the hostel, she explained, as clearly as she could, the amenities. Not quite in the heart of Luang Prabang as the brochure claimed but close enough. Clean and with a functioning fan to move the hot air around, we were suitably content. We headed out, even though it was late, and imbibed a Beerlao across the road before climbing into our bed. Styled as a "tonic for the soul" by our guidebook, it was perchance the first time it had come close to be completely accurate. The next morning, we ambled into town to take a look around. 

Luang Prabang is a relaxed kind of place. It feels rather as if an ageing hippy has wafted into town and re-organised the harmony into something completely tranquil. It does not have the same fabricated serenity of Pokhara in Nepal - it is altogether something more natural and special. Almost untouched, in fact, and spotlessly clean. This wonderful small town rests on the confluence of two rivers - the Mekong, of course, and the Nam Khan. Small villages dot the banks of either which can be observed from either side of the town as it rests some 30 or 40m above them. Replete with buddhist wats and stupas, you could explore the town looking only for religious buildings and still have work to do after several weeks. Some of them, clearly home to studying monks, are extremely interesting to give time to - contemplation of the monks' way of life is a worthy way of spending that time. Wat Xieng Tuong is the oldest monastery and one of the most interesting. Some are simple affairs, but most are adorned with ornate roofs and white or golden walls and archways with rich tapestries of carvings and bas-reliefs, delightfully juxtaposing the spiritual with the splendid.

We breakfasted at the rather Starbucks' JoMa Café before heading off down the main thoroughfare, off which almost every street runs, called Xiang Thong which is a delightful mélange of traditional Laos wooden houses and European architecture reminiscent of the time when Laos was a French colony of Indochine. Each side of the street is fairly caressed by tall palm trees providing welcome shade from the heat. Monks in deep, bright orange robes silently walk the streets to their next class of collecting alms for the poor. In the evening, children play in the Nam Khan river and we sat for a while to watch their families gather in the wooden huts beyond, drinking and socialising. We wished we could join them! We ate a simple noodle soup dinner on Xiang Thong, and supped cool Beerlao, as we watched the world pass us by and the sun set. That is the way of Luang Prabang, it is easy for time to simply pass by as you relax and enjoy your surroundings. There are so many things to do - treks to sign up for, tours of the surrounding countryside a villages, adventurous pursuits on water, track and road but we really wanted to get out ourselves so made plans for the next day to do some touring of our own.

Kuang Si Waterfalls 
The next morning, we decided to hire bikes and head out to the Kuang Si waterfalls some 32km from the centre of town. For $8 we could have hired a tuk-tuk. The bikes cost us $5 for the day. We saved $3 and on the basis of that astute, investment erudition, I have drafted a letter of resignation to my employer with a view to taking up investment banking full time. I have every confidence I’ll be tremendously successful and if my blog simply disappears one day, you’ll know why. In truth, we thought it would be more fun to cycle to the waterfalls than to take yet another tuk-tuk. The reality, thanks to the searing mid-morning sun, was somewhat different. We’d shrewdly decided to take water with us in big 2 litre bottles strapped to our bikes so we weren’t de-hydrated and, really, we enjoyed the wind on our faces as we raced down hills and that alone was enough to banish the memory of steep, dusty climbs. 

The countryside around us was wildly beautiful, rolling hillsides garbed in dusty green scrubland or carved into immaculate farmland. As we cycled, we passed small villages and children scrambled out to meet us, running along with the bikes, whooping and laughing with joy, even extending a hand for a 'high-five'. It was a truly life-affirming moment of the type you envisage when poring over maps back home deciding where to spend you hard earned weeks of leave travelling, but rarely encounter. We waved back - cue comic bike almost-crashing moment - and continued on our way. This happen several times and, much as I’d like to be cynical and suggest that the Lao realise tourism is fundamental to their economy and their friendliness has a pecuniary edge to it, I just did not get that feeling, unlike India, Thailand or Cambodia. It is much more like Nepal in this respect - both are impoverished nations with affluent neighbours but who, very often, seem far more charming and welcoming irregardless. 

We arrived at Kuang Si hot, sweaty and somewhat fatigued. Nevertheless, we had enjoyed the ride - well, I had. Whether my partner, dragged on my insane schemes felt exactly the same way, I cannot be sure. She plays her cards close to her chest, both metaphorically and literally. That she was ruddy-faced and “glowing” and not speaking to me could, to a more astute observer, have been evidence of some significance. 

Of course, at a site of touristic interest, the ubiquitous hawkers and stalls peddling food, drink and tourist tat were omnipresent. Unlike many other places in South East Asia, they were, however, not quite so obnoxious. It was here, in fact, that my long-held distaste for the Oreo biscuit (if, indeed it can be called a biscuit rather than a cake as I understand a protracted debate in the US has yet to resolve) was reversed. For some inexplicable reason, the humble Oreo has an all-pervasive presence in South East Asia. It is as if all the intelligence agencies of the region have coalesced to whisper into the ears of government officials that western tourists simply cannot survive without them. However this biscuit epidemic was started, we were starving so grabbed two packs, haggling with the owner of the stall for the right to park our bikes there as well - an extra 2,000 kip was his opening gambit which we bargained down to 1,000 feeling rather pleased with ourselves. Given others were probably doing it for free, we needn’t have, but there you go. I always feel rather guilty bargaining with people so much less affluent that me, but for one thing, the tourist prices in South East Asia are, by locals’ own admission, inflated in expectation of haggling (as well as their innate pecuniary predisposition) and for another, it’s a great deal of fun and a superb way to get chatting to locals. In fact, we often buy things we never would have, were it not for the opportunity to haggle, so I feel somewhat vindicated. 

After some minutes, having parted with 20,000 kip each ($5 in total) we found our way through the forest to the waterfalls and sat. I cannot recall how much it is to gain entrance to the waterfalls but, whatever it was, it was worth it. Niagara Falls they are not (although they certainly don’t have the horrific, garish amusement arcade tourist trap next to them that Niagara does) but attractive, nonetheless. There are pools nearby that many were bathing in, often by means of a rope attached to a tree from which they would then launch themselves into the crystal blue waters. We did the same and very cooling it was too. Nearby is a bear rescue centre. We stayed for some time, observing the bears, before the tourist hordes arrived and we moved off. The ride back, not quite so distinguishable for its horrible climbs, in fact had many long descents but we still got back to the Jaliya tired and drained. We snoozed for an hour before showering and heading back out for dinner. We often cram just about as much as it is possible to sardine into a trip but, sometimes, we both acknowledge that a snooze is necessary and welcome, even if it means forgoing something. There’s little point visiting a site for the sake of it, inevitably despising it because of enforced somnolence, and then not being sufficiently ebullient to continue on to the things you do want to do. We don’t have the energy of these youngsters, what with their “rocking long and hard” inclinations, you know! 

Back in Luang Prabang 
I confess now to having had a hankering for a pizza. It often afflicts me when travelling and, sadly, I capitulated this time. As I wolfed down a rather decent example and quaffed a Diet Coke, I felt supremely gratified. Beyond Kuang Si and the various temples, there are not a whole host of monuments and sites to visit. Much of the attractive stuff is to be done out of town. We took a small trip on the Mekong (as do monks, it would seem) but, otherwise, simply contented ourselves with just being in Luang Prabang - it has that effect on you. Each evening, the main street swells with merchants peddling the usual tourist tat and, although it feels rather like Bangkok, it is far less hectic or swarming with western tourists. I haggled over a couple of t-shirts and my partner found a rather nice bag but we delighted in simply strolling through the market, eating, drinking and taking everything in as night fell and the town glistened. We then headed down to the Mekong to watch the sun dip beneath the horizon. We would be eternally saddened to say goodbye to Luang Prabang.

The Mountain Pass to Huay Xai - 16hrs on a Bus
It was in the Soup Dragon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that we’d decided to take the 16 hour overnight trip from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai crossing the border (the Mekong River, in fact) into Thailand, rather than any other route. Had we known what state the road was in, my partner, certainly, would have objected. The whole thing cost 340,000kip.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about the road to Huay Xai: "The road from Huay Xai (the Laos town across the river from Chiang Khong) to Luang Prabang is poorly maintained, remote, unlit, unmarked and extremely dangerous for the unfamiliar traveler, particularly in the wet season. Regular buses nonetheless do run, taking 14–16 hours."

We took a tuk-tuk out to the bus station arriving somewhat early in order to procure for ourselves decent seats. When we saw the bus for the first time, even though by now we had got used to the level of technology usual for Laos, we were sceptical. It was a relic, of that we were sure, but the bullet holes in the windows and the dashboard only mildly concerned us. Our seats were at the front of the bus, directly behind the driver’s seat. We were sat across from a window frame that was missing a window. At the time, hot and dry as it was, this seemed a good thing. It was to become really bad later. 

Our rucksacks, as we’d suspected, were placed on the roof but we’d packed a dinner for ourselves that would be relatively easy to eat on a rocky, bumpy journey and also calorie-efficient. We’d discovered, in Luang Prabang, a Scandinavia Bakery (so, of course, we had to buy food from there) and we’d bought whatever they had left before we left for the bus. This amounted to four sugarless donuts and four rolls with cheese. To this we added our, now, faithful friend, the Oreo biscuit (not cake) and plenty of water. We imagined that it might get a little cold overnight, so packed fleeces as well. Were I as knowledgeable then as I am now, I’d have packed an insulating down layer like the Nano Puff, but hindsight is crystal clear vision. 

The driver, reeking of Lao Beer, took his seat and we haltingly moved off. With him were two pre-pubescent lads, of the type you imagine should be in school learning algebra, who chain-smoked through the next few hours. It was after an hour when the traffic cleared and the road became less busy - largely, I suspect, because even the Lao are not lunatic enough to take the road over the mountains that we were about to. As the road cleared, and became ever more pot-holed and narrow, our driver (you might think, controversially) quickened his pace. By this stage, the road was not that high and we were still simply hurtling through villages and forests. It was not until much later that we began to climb. Much of the trip is a blur now - terrifying events often are, I am told - but there certainly came a time when we were climbing so steeply in our archaic vehicle that the engine was gasping stuttered protests and I began to steal glances at my Suunto Vector to ascertain the altitude - we were, at one point, 1800m up. By this time, night had fallen but the forest canopy below us was bathed in a silky, blue moonlight sheen. The mountains ahead of us and across the valley were equally garbed in that ethereal, unearthly light. The stars, unencumbered by unnatural light, stood proud and prominent. The only sound we could hear was the thunderous bellow of the tortured engine. I should point out, at this stage, that the road was unfeasible narrow and bristling with potholes. The drop was of the sheer type that you see explained in news reports accompanied by the headline “Bus crashes in Africa killing 3 Britons”. It was, as is the way of mountain passes, of course, a winding, hairpin-infested death trap. We looked down (always a mistake) mindful of the fact that we had hours numbered in double figures left to drive.

As night fell, the second rather disquieting feature of the trip was brought starkly to our attention. The broken windows were doing little to keep heat in the bus. As I have hitherto remarked, the second law of thermodynamics dictates that heat is passed to cold so ours, having an entire mountain valley to heat up, was leaving us like rats on a sinking ship. We suddenly found the only way to keep warm was to stuff every spare bag and newspaper on the bus down our fleeces. Locals viewed us with a mixture of confusion and wonder. Those peculiar westerners and their eccentric fashions.

We made a pit stop at one point during the journey, stopping at a road-side collection of food places and toilets. Clearly not a “Welcome Break” on the M25, it was certainly welcome. We relieved ourselves, grabbed a few more plastic bags, and ate whatever they had. Chocolate was the order of the day if I recall correctly. As I strolled around, taking in the area, I realised that there was literally nothing around us. If we were the subject of some misadventure, the nearest help would not even be aware of our predicament until 7am the next morning and it would take another 10 hours to reach us. Oddly, this did not concern me greatly as our diver, erratic though he was, seemed confident and knew the road well. Had I realised what was to happen next, I might not have got back on the bus!

As we boarded, our driver lay on the centre console on a blanket a cushions and, within seconds, was snoring away. Installed in the driver’s vacated seat was one of our pre-pubescent young cigarette-puffers. As he manhandled the bus away, nearly extracting a chunk from a nearby truck, I inhaled sharply and involuntarily, and forced a smile to my partner. She had been snoozing (she can sleep anywhere, the lucky woman) and instantly returned to her slumber. The next few hours were hair-raising as our young apprentice tracked his way through the mountains in a manner that seemed far less assured than our dipsomaniac elder driver, who now siesta’ed next to him. I pulled out my BlackBerry and shoved earphones into my ears in an effort to drown out the engine and put on the soundtrack from Lord of the Rings. I often listen to film scores when hillwalking and this was sufficient to permit me some dozing time of my own. As dawn’s early light crept over the mountain horizon, I awoke having slept a few fitful hours. It was 4am and we had 3 hours to go, so I stared out of the window for that time.

Mercifully, those last hours passed quickly as I had settled into the rhythm of the bus by now and our elder driver was at the helm. No one else was awake and I felt comforted by that solitude. With The Return of the King providing a dramatic, vivid musical milieu to the landscape ahead, I found I was relishing the journey and had all along. In fact, whether it was genuine happiness or the relief of having navigated the mountain road safely, I felt utterly at peace. Heinrich Harrer in his book The White Spider, when describing his ascent with three others of the North Face of the Eiger, said “...we humans often experience happiness without recognising it; but here, in that bivouac of ours, I was not only genuinely happy, but I knew I was.” I can understand what Harrer meant - I must’ve looked quite the eccentric Englishman staring out of the window on what, to others, must’ve been just another bus journey, with a huge grin on my face. I cannot deny it was a gruelling journey but that, I feel, is often what travelling is about. 

We pulled into the bus depot and took tuk-tuk’s down to the river whereupon we queued at a small hut to exit Laos and enter Thailand. We ambled down the river, grateful and happy, and got into a boat. We offered the driver one of our Oreos and he munched on it with a smile. We disembarked and, within moments (our passports already stamped with visas) we were in Thailand. We’d located a taxi/bus to Chiang Mai, no small distance away, and, while waiting for that to take us, we booked a hostel to stay in there.

Chiang Mai, Thailand 
The odd thing about Thailand, when you actually get out of Bangkok, is that journeying through much of it is akin to Southern California. Replete with large freeways, huge road-side billboards and big, chunky 4x4 vehicles, you do not feel as if you’re in South East Asia at all but some western parody. We stopped off, en route to Chiang Mai, at a small road-side café which was, fortuitously, a glass sculpting factory with wares galore for us to look at and buy. It was clear that the taxi/bus would be slow to leave without some purchasing so we bought some trinket or other which would eventually become a pleasant Christmas gift at some time in the future. It was something like 5 hours before we arrived at Chiang Mai and, by now, we were shattered.

Our accomodation was a hostel, the Namkhong, that was large and much like Hanoi Backpackers but not quite as noisy. We could not care less, by now, and fairly fell into our room, and showered before collapsing on our beds for the rest of the afternoon to sleep. At 300THB per night, we were more than satisfied. We awoke sometime after nightfall, pulled on some clothes and went out for dinner. 

The first thing you notice about Chiang Mai is that it marries the ancient buddhist stupa with the other major religious monument of the western world - Starbucks. That the two can exist in harmony seemed to me to be in diametric opposition but indeed they do. I could wax lyrical for hours about the damage western tourism has done to the once amazing ancient places in South East Asia but that would be akin to suggesting that third world countries remain third world so that we have something to visit and pretend we are roughing it in before going home to Starbucks, MacDonald’s and delayed railway trains. Progression comes to every nation and travelling is about the moment, not necessarily where you are. Nevertheless, you can wander around Chiang Mai, and be amazed by the way that the city has progressed without prejudicing Buddhism.

The Old Town is really the place to start as the majority of the Wats to visit are located here. Indeed, there is such a proliferation of them that you hardly have the time. Most backpackers come to Chiang Mai to engage in hill tribe treks but there is so much about these treks which tends to suggest that the hill tribes are exploited and children abused and forced into pseudo-tribal practices for the benefit of visitors that we felt utterly iniquitous about undertaking such a trek. Instead, we booked white-water rafting for the next day. The main hub for the backpacker community is the Loi Kroh Soi where the vast majority of bars are located and the vast majority of backpackers seem to congregate. The more affluent, usually older, flashpacking community have a far greater choice across the Old City and there is some rather lovely eating to be had throughout Chiang Mai. We, obviously, had to visit both.

It is a sad feature of South East Asia, with the exception we found, of Laos, that there are so many beggars, scam artists, pushy tuk-tuk drivers and generally hard-nosed individuals out for pecuniary advantage that it can seem like an intimidating place but travellers have made it that way with their dollars. It is a part of the experience now, perhaps as distorted an image of the true Asia as could be seen, and you need to really get out of the major tourists tracks to avoid it. Perhaps that is why we found Laos such a fresh, easy place to be. Not as intense as Bankgok, Chiang Mai is the second most-visited venue in Thailand. That much is clear from a few days in the city - it is not yet Khao San Road, but those days are not far off. That said, Chiang Mai is a chilled place, relaxed and easy in its own skin. We relented and visited a couple of bars in our time - Sister's on Loi Kroh, to engage in some free pool and Singha beer and the rather astounding and atmospheric Pinte's Blues Bar run an aged, elfin character with a pony tail who served only beer and whisky with smoky blues insinuating the background purlieu. Photos, autographs, album covers and other blues memorabilia dotted the walls and we drank cool beer whilst listening to blues. It was magnificent.

The next day we departed early for some grade III whitewater. I had opted for a more sedate trip for the sanity of my partner, but when we arrived, we could see that we would not be in six-man rafts but two-man inflatable kayaks. I am a BCU 2-star whitewater kayaker, not far off 3-star, so I was relishing this opportunity. With a local guide behind each of us, we took to the water. For two hours we rode grade 3 rapids with instructions barked by our lunatic guides. From time to time, they would invert the rafts, dumping us (and them) into the cool water and laughing as we, and our Italian companions, played in the water. It was grin-inducing stuff and, at the end, we packed the rafts on the truck and climbed atop them for the ride back to Chiang Mai in the sun.

Chiang Mai reminds me of a US city. There are US cars everywhere, coffee-shops reminiscent of small-town USA and roads are identical. Yet, it has a quintessential Thai-ness to it too with the proliferation of wats, street markets and tuk-tuks. It is an odd mix that does not seem immediately to be a perfect marriage, but it works rather well. It is a fairly congenial place to be and spend time but it does not introduce the visitor to anything of the real Thailand, yet I have come to the conclusion over the years that cities do nothing to explain to a visitor what it is to be a native of a given country. You need to leave the city in order to understand that.

Back In Bangkok
We arrived in Bangkok and, after a perfunctory disagreement with a cab driver about routes and fares, we found our lodgings for the night. As we made our way down a tiny alleyway canopied by trees, off a busy main road, we reached a door emblazoned with a sign which I will always find so very alarming: "No Thais". The door was opened by a shifty, wizened looking fellow who beckoned us in and took us through a tiny courtyard into a dark, rather dingy-looking hallway. We made our way up some stairs and into a pleasant, largely dark-wood room. When asking for the money up-front, and double what we had agreed when we called two days earlier, the man's face displayed not a flicker of emotion. I disagreed and another argument ensued. Irritated by the second attempt to rip us off by a Thai in less than 15 minutes, we left. A short scouring of the streets led us to several options, two of which we discarded and the third we took. It was a somewhat prison-like place, and the room had no windows, but we needed only somewhere to lay our heads and hand our mossie-net, and this place was cheap and fit those criteria. We dumped our kit, pleased to have walked out of the first place and emboldened by our principled stance we headed off into the night.

As I have said, I have found Bangkok to be too much of a backpacker cliché for me. I would much rather find places that are less-travelled and not dominated by gap-year students. So it was that I felt that, if I were to take that view, I wanted to see Khao San Road again and spend some time there. It has been called a "Backpacker Ghetto" and a "place to disappear" in Susan Orlean's article from the New Yorker in January 2000. It is an area that exists solely to cater to the backpacker community - it is a gateway to the rest of South East Asia and that function is a useful one, but it has no soul beyond that which the backpackers who trawl through it give it. There is an English Boots here, bars replicating Irish Pubs, satellite TV is everywhere and it is impossible to avoid a street hawker trying to sell you some trip or drugs. A ticket to anywhere, or to do anything, is available and the competition is fierce. Backpackers from every corner of the globe fill the bars and stumble out at closing time (not even sure there is one) too sodden to know or care where they are. There is nothing of Thailand in Khao San Road, or many of the roads beyond it, and I could think of nothing more hellish than spending more than a few hours here. I think back to Luang Prabang and to the villages we passed through and I know that it's those I'll remember when I am old and explaining South east Asia to my children rather than this manufactured fabrication.

At the airport he next day, I explained to the lady at the Eva Air desk that I had long legs and would love an aisle seat. She smiled, and obliged. We got the two seats right and the back of the aircraft, one next to the window, the other an aisle, both with room to lean backwards and with no one else near us. 

It's always worth politely asking.


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